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Byline Times has interviewed education experts and viewed emails from the Department for Education (DfE) revealing an unofficial policy of blacklisting and censorship of speakers at education events.
Subject access requests reveal the DfE trawls social media accounts for criticism of the DfE, even a couple of Tweets containing minor criticism have resulted in event organisers being threatened with having funding withdrawn if speakers aren’t removed, speakers being limited to only appearing remotely and demands that presentations are submitted prior to events for vetting by the DfE.
When the DfE organised the launch event for its North West Stronger Practice Hub it invited a number of education experts to speak at the event. Ruth Swailes received an invitation to speak. Swailes fit the requirements, a school improvement officer and Early Years curriculum author for the Oxford University Press, she won Nursery World’s Trainer of the Year award in 2021. However, it appears an impressive CV is not enough for the DfE.
The event’s organisers were contacted by the DfE and were told that funding for the event would be withdrawn unless a number of educators were removed from the speakers list.
When Ruth Swailes discovered the DfE were demanding she be removed from the line up she asked for an explanation. In an online meeting, a representative of the DfE told her a complaint had been made regarding the suitability of a number of speakers. Swailes was told “some people have been very unkind” in regards to the DfE’s non-statutory Development Matters early years curriculum. Doubting the DfE’s reasoning Swailes submitted a subject access request.
From the DfE’s response.
Someone at the DfE had decided it was worth trawling Swailes social media for criticism of its early years curriculum. Despite finding nothing that could be considered to be bringing the DfE into “disrepute” they still decided they didn’t want her speaking. It’s possible the DfE realised its decision-making could appear dubious. When Swailes threatened legal action the DfE relented, partially.
Swailes was allowed to appear at the event, but her attendance could only be for 30 minutes and it had to be via conference call rather than attending in person. She also had to submit her presentation to the DfE prior to the event so that the department could screen it for anything they considered inappropriate. She was also told not to mention ‘Birth to 5 Matters’, another non-statutory curriculum used by a number of early years providers written by experts in the sector independent of the DfE.
When Dr Mine Conkbayir found out she had been cancelled from the event, she contacted the DfE questioning their decision and highlighting the recent work she had done for the department.
“I have gone out of my way to support the DfE in designing training that is child-centred and respectful….giving hours of my time and collating the responses of hundreds of practitioners across the sector. Most would have charged a fee and had some acknowledgement – not me,” she told Byline Times.
The organisers explained their recent encounter where the DfE raised the subject as a priority in a meeting about the SP Hub delivery plan. They were told they would have to review the conference plans, as the DfE “couldn’t be seen to be funding someone who is so disrespectful of the DfE.” Only two tweets by Conkbayir were provided as evidence of her being disrespectful. Conkbayir was subjected to the same censorship as Swailes.
This isn’t the only event where it appears the DfE have engaged in censorship. After agreeing to speak at a DfE-funded event scheduled in October Sue Allingham received a communication from the department, which stated at the bottom in large red writing that the DfE stipulated that ‘Birth to 5 Matters ‘should not be mentioned.
As early years education is non-compulsory there is no national curriculum, and the guidance for the sector is non-statutory. ‘Development Matters’ and ‘Birth to 5 Matters’ are just reference texts designed to support practitioners in developing the best practice for them. As Allingham explained to the Byline Times, her presentations usually reference both texts without favouritism, and she expressed her concerns – as did others the Byline Times has spoken with – that the DfE was attempting to make its non-statutory guidance the de facto document for the sector via the backdoor.
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The DfE’s trawling for social media extends beyond speakers for events it provides funding for. Sue Cowley, a teacher educator and author of practical books on education who doesn’t speak at DfE events, put in her own subject access request out of curiosity.
The results were several pages of internal DfE emails quoting her Twitter account, examples included Cowley telling people to “tale the stuff that the DfE publish with a huge pinch of salt” and to “trust your instincts, not this government” in regards to pedagogy.
The DfE has been monitoring social media for several years, the emails provided to Cowley’s request go back to 2020 monitoring her criticism of covid policies and the level of engagement individual tweets received.
The issue of DfE censorship appears wider than when the Byline Times first began its investigation as more individuals come forward to give their accounts, and the issue seems to extend beyond simply controlling who appears at DfE events.
One educator has informed us that some people they’ve worked with have been contacted with the possible “suggestion that they might be bringing their company into disrepute by working with me.”